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Roman Church

A History Christianity

Robert A. Guisepi

Date:        1992

Europe's Search For Stability

The Church In The Early Middle Ages



     As Europe gradually emerged from the destruction of the Roman Empire, the church became one of the mainstays of civilization. During the pontificate of Gregory I the Great (590-604), the medieval papacy began to assert its authority. Gregory's achievement was to go beyond the claim of papal primacy in the church by beginning to establish the temporal power of the papacy.


Gregory the Great and the Early Medieval Papacy, 600-1000


     A Roman aristocrat by birth, Gregory witnessed and commented on the

devastation of Rome as the city changed hands three times during Justinian's long struggle to retake Italy from the Ostrogoths:


          Ruins on ruins .... Where is the senate? Where the people?

          All the pomp of secular dignities has been destroyed ....

          And we, the few that we are who remain, every day we are

          menaced by scourges and innumerable trials. ^5


[Footnote 5: Quoted in R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From

Constantine to Saint Louis (London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1957), p.



Concluding that the world was coming to an end, Gregory withdrew from it to become a Benedictine monk. In 579 the pope convinced him to undertake a fruitless mission seeking Byzantine aid against the Lombards, who had invaded Italy a few years before. After Gregory was elected pope in 590, he assumed the task of protecting Rome and its surrounding territory from the Lombard threat. Thus Gregory was the first pope to act as temporal ruler of a part of what later became the Papal States.


     Gregory the Great also laid the foundation for the elaborate papal

machinery of church government. He took the first step toward papal control of the church outside of Italy by sending a mission of Benedictine monks to

convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The pattern of church government Gregory

established in England - bishops supervised by archbishops, and archbishops by the pope - became standard in the church.


     The task of establishing papal control of the church and extending the

pope's temporal authority was continued by Gregory's successors. In the eighth century, English missionaries transferred to Germany and France the pattern of papal government they had known in England; and the Donation of Pepin, by creating the Papal States, greatly increased the pope's temporal power. The papacy's spiritual and temporal power was restrained, however, with the onset of feudalism. Beginning in the late ninth century, the church, including the papacy, fell more and more under the control of secular lords and kings.


Missionary Activities of the Church


     The early Middle Ages was a period of widespread missionary activity. By spreading Christianity, missionaries aided in the fusion of Germanic and

classical cultures. Monasteries served as havens for those seeking a

contemplative life, as repositories of learning for scholars, and often as

progressive farming centers. The zeal with which the monks approached their faith often extended beyond the monastic walls.


     One of the earliest Christian missionaries to the Germans was Ulfilas (c.

311-383), who spent forty years among the Visigoths and translated most of the Bible into Gothic. Ulfilas and other early missionaries were followers of

Arius, and so the Arian form of Christianity was adopted by all the Germanic

tribes in the empire except the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. As we saw earlier,

the Franks' adoption of Roman Catholicism produced an important alliance

between Frankish rulers and the papacy.


     Another great missionary, Patrick, was born in England about 389 and

later fled to Ireland to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As a result of his

missionary activities in Ireland, monasteries were founded and Christianity

became the dominant religion. In the late sixth and seventh centuries a large number of monks from the Irish monasteries went to Scotland, northern England, the kingdom of the Franks, and even to Italy. The Irish monks eagerly pursued scholarship, and their monasteries became storehouses for priceless



     When Gregory the Great became pope, the papacy joined forces with

monasticism to take an active role in the missionary movement. Gregory sent a Benedictine mission to England in 596. Starting in Kent, where an

archbishopric was founded at Canterbury ("Kent town"), Roman Christianity

spread through England, and finally even the Irish church founded by St.

Patrick acknowledged the primacy of Rome.


     The English church, in turn, played an important part in the expansion of

Roman-controlled Christianity on the Continent. Boniface, the greatest

missionary from England in the eighth century, spent thirty-five years among

the Germanic tribes. Known as "the Apostle to the Germans," he established

several important monasteries, bishoprics, and an archbishopric at Mainz

before he turned to the task of reforming the church in France. There he

revitalized the monasteries, organized a system of local parishes to bring

Christianity to the countryside, and probably was instrumental in forming the

alliance beween the papacy and the Carolingian house. Roman Catholic

missionaries also worked among the Scandinavians and the western Slavs.


The Preservation of Knowledge


     One of the great contributions of the monasteries was the preservation of

the learning of the classical world and that of the church. Learning did not

entirely die out in western Europe, of course. Seeing that the ability to read

Greek was quickly disappearing, the sixth-century Roman scholar Boethius, an administrator under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, determined to preserve Greek learning by translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. Only Aristotle's treatises on logic were translated, and these remained the sole works of that philosopher available in the West until the twelfth century.

Unjustly accused of treachery by Theodoric, Boethius was thrown into prison, where he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. This little work later became a medieval textbook on philosophy.


     Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius who had also served Theodoric,

devoted most of his life to the collection and preservation of classical

knowledge. By encouraging the monks to copy valuable manuscripts, he was instrumental in making the monasteries centers of learning. Following his example, many monasteries established scriptoria, departments concerned exclusively with copying manuscripts.


     During the early Middle Ages most education took place in the

monasteries. In the late sixth and seventh centuries, when the effects of the

barbarian invasions were still being felt on the Continent, Irish monasteries

provided a safe haven for learning. There men studied Greek and Latin, copied and preserved manuscripts, and in illuminating them produced masterpieces of art. The Book of Kells is a surviving example of their skill.


     An outstanding scholar of the early Middle Ages, the Venerable Bede (d.

735), followed the Irish tradition of learning in a northern English

monastery. Bede described himself as "ever taking delight in learning,

teaching, and writing." His many writings, which included textbooks and

commentaries on the Scriptures, summed up most knowledge available in his age. Through Alcuin later in the century, Bede's learning influenced the

Carolingian Renaissance. Bede's best work, the Ecclesiastical History of the

English People, with its many original documents and vivid character sketches, is our chief source for early British history.

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